Living With The Epidemic: State official talks about hoarding

September 20, 2017

Article originally sourced from MartinsvilleBulletin





"MARTINSVILLE–There was a man who once bought three rats after his wife died. He wanted some pets and so he adopted the rats, to keep him company. But soon, three rats turned into 10 and he kept going, buying 15 and then 20. By the time authorities discovered the situation, his house was infested by 3,000 rats and the man himself was living in an outbuilding. However, he cared so much about his rats that when he found a dead one, he mourned it and blamed himself for its death.


Hoarding is an issue, whether it involves living animals or collecting material in your home. In fact, it has been officially defined as a disability, which means among other things, landlords cannot legally reject a hoarder’s application to rent.


The topic came up Wednesday at the Henry County Administration Building, as Mahalia “Mally” Dryden-Mason, a Fair Housing Training Specialist in the Virginia Fair Housing Office, spoke about ways of “Battling the Growing Hoarding Epidemic.”


The program was sponsored by Martinsville/Henry County Seniors and Law Enforcement Working Together (S.A.L.T.).


“This is a hot topic here,” she said. “Everyone wants to know about hoarding.”

In addition to the man who hoarded rats, Dryden-Mason talked about a case where 109 cats were found in a person’s home. Only seven survived, and only one of them was tame enough to be a pet.


Another woman bought a horse. “That one horse she bought just triggered hoarding,” Dryden-Mason said: Within two months, the woman had 60 horses. They weren’t being cared for properly and had to be removed.


Illinois and Hawaii are the only states which have laws that specifically address animal hoarding, Dryden-Mason said. However, animal hoarding is implicitly covered by all states’ animal cruelty statues. They typically require caretakers to provide sufficient food, water and veterinary care.


Cases of animal hoarding usually are discovered after putrid or foul odors or infestations of bugs are noticed by people outside the house, she said.

Defining the term


As Dryden-Mason introduced her topic, she defined hoarders. “Number one, if you are a hoarder, you wouldn’t be telling anybody,” she said – to the chuckles of those folks in the crowd.


Hoarding is defined as “persistent difficulty discarding possessions, regardless of their values,” such that living areas cannot be used, she said. A home may have only narrow pathways which wind through stacks of clutter. The medical term for hoarding is “disposophobia.”


“When your house gets full, your cars take over, or your outbuildings,” she said. “I can tell who’s hoarding without ever going into the homes” because the porches and outside areas are full.


Some hoarders collect animals, she said.


The American Psychiatric Association recently added hoarding to its list of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-5 disabilities. That designation came “after 19 years of research and studying disorders,” Dryden-Mason said.


Hoarding also is linked to other mental disorders, such as: depression, social phobias, anxiety, ADHD, OCD and obesity. Depression affects about half of hoarders


“They used to say that hoarding was OCD,” she said, but that didn’t make sense to her: “Most people with OCD tend to be overly clean.”


There is some speculation that the urge to hoard was passed down through time as a once helpful condition. Before these days of materialism, when mankind had few possessions, people had to keep whatever they found useful. Through evolution, she said, most human beings have lost that urge – but not all.

“Some say it’s hereditary,” she said.


Research shows that it’s characteristic of many people who hoard that they don’t return items they had borrowed, and they steal things. Hoarders spend large sums of money purchasing items – and often don’t pay necessities, such as utility bills, she said.


Hoarders have a difficult time throwing things away. They believe an item will have value in the future, or has sentimental value, or was too big a bargain to throw away.


Hoarding is different from collecting, she said. Collectors have pride in their collections, which usually are kept neatly displayed or organized. Hoarders are embarrassed about their possessions, and they avoid having people come into their homes. While collectors budget for their acquisitions, hoarders usually are in debt.


By the numbers


Six percent of Americans are hoarders, Dryden-Mason said. It’s most common among elderly women. About 15 million or more elderly adults have the disorder.


Hoarding is statistically four times more common than Alzheimer’s disease, Dryden-Mason added.


Half of all hoarders excessively acquire free items, and 75 percent of hoarders engage in excessive buying.


Hoarders generally are not considered to be lazy, nasty or defiant, she said – and in fact, most tend to be very intelligent, and even successful in their careers.


The best treatment for hoarding is cognitive behavior therapy. About 70 percent of patients respond positively to talk therapy, training and motivational interviewing, she said.


Success from the use of antidepressants has mixed results, she said. Scientists do not fully understand neurological sources of hoarding, and effective medication has not been discovered for it.


Simply forcing hoarders to throw away large quantities of their stuff, or cleaning it out for them, has very little effect on improvement, she said.


She told the story of a woman whose children sent her off on a cruise. While she was gone, they cleared out her full house. When the mother returned, she was mad at them for doing it – and within two months, she had spent $20,000 and filled up the house again.


Support for hoarders has to come in on several levels, she said. She said that she would like to see hoarding addressed on a large scale with the involvement of hoarding task forces, peer support groups, inter-agencies collaborations, clean-up companies and mental health organizations designed to help hoarders.


Fairfax County has the nation’s hoarding task force, she said. It was started in 1998.


The original Collyers’ mess


Dryden-Mason talked about the case of two famous hoarders, brothers Homer and Langley Collyer – the sons of two cousins who had married. The brothers lived in a brownstone mansion in Manhattan.


Homer was blind, and Langley believed he could cure his brother’s blindness by feeding him a special diet of black bread, peanut butter and dozens of oranges each week. Meanwhile, Langley kept years’ worth of newspapers for his brother to read when that time came.


Homer never left the mansion, and Langley only went out for errands occasionally at night. The two were found dead there in 1947, after neighbors reported a foul odor coming from inside the mansion.


Homer’s body was found first; he had died of starvation and heart failure. Police began the process of emptying the house. Langley’s body was found two and a half weeks later, only 8 feet from where his brother had been found. He had been crushed by piles that had fallen onto him."



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